Forget Technology: Retailers Need to Master the Basics

Discussion
Oct 08, 2013

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from ScreenPlay InterActive’s blog

The retail world is abuzz with discussions and investigations into the latest technologies that can "transform" stores into surefire profit centers that will take back the ground lost to successful e-tailers like Amazon. Few ever really implement new technologies that truly leverage mobile, big data and real cross-channel merchandising. But retailers do spend a lot of time considering — and making it known that they are considering — "tricking out" their stores with the latest and greatest technology to make shopping fun, exciting, meaningful, satisfying, efficient, convenient (choose your adjective).

In reality, many retailers can achieve these same lofty goals without technology, at least initially. They simply need to focus on mastering the basics of customer service and user experience, as did visionaries in the non-tech heyday of retailing (Macy, Field, Wanamaker, Ward, etc.).

I’m a proponent of innovative retail technology, but I’m also the first to admit it will fail if built on a foundation of poor service and apathetic C-level management — all too often the situation today.

It gets worse when decentralized management (which often seems like a good idea) is structured so that store-level problems are kept from corporate’s awareness.

Take Whole Foods: the corporate PR machine spins stories of satisfied customers and innovation like self-guided shopping carts, while store-level service failures get washed away with the tide.

[Image: Kinect Grocery Cart]

Personal example: after reporting two ongoing issues with a New Jersey store via the corporate website, seven days later(!) an e-mail arrived from the local store’s associate store team leader, Darreck. Another eight days passed with nothing resolved, so I placed a call to the Northeast Regional Office, talking to Jason. That inquiry went the way of what can be described as Jason covering for his buddy. Rather than investing more energy (and weeks) into hunting down John Mackey, our grocery shopping has moved elsewhere.

So doesn’t it make much more sense for corporate to be sure that their house is in order? Wouldn’t investments be better dedicated to focusing on customer desires? That they have a headquarters through checkout aisle management hierarchy that checks and rechecks that consumer needs are always the focus? That they have open and effective channels of customer communication and problem resolution all the way to the top — before … way, way before … they delude themselves that tech solutions are the key to customer happiness?

Do you think tech solutions are distracting retailers from “the basics” of customer service or, in more cases, improving customer service? Can you think of retailers who have invested in cutting edge technology while maintaining great customer service?

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30 Comments on "Forget Technology: Retailers Need to Master the Basics"

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Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
4 years 1 month ago

High-end department and apparel stores can use tablets to assist customers by extending the aisle, showing them other options, searching for items that aren’t stocked locally, etc. A highly-trained associate can use technology to the customer’s advantage. The key is to use it to complement personalized service rather than to reduce head count and cut costs. It’s much harder when you have stores that aren’t optimally staffed in the first place.

Frank Riso
BrainTrust

I disagree with Ken on this one. I do think that technology is an enabler for store associates to have an equal footing with customers who use their technology while shopping/showrooming, etc. I cannot see how Home Depot can route a call from a customer directly to the right person in the right department without their First Phone solution, nor how can American Apparel find the right size, color and style product without RFID readers in all their stores. Yes we may be able to do all that in time, but not in time for today’s consumer who wants an answer as fast as their computer can tell them.

Fabien Tiburce
Guest
Fabien Tiburce
4 years 1 month ago

Too much technology is just like too little: futile. Brands that don’t automate are just as bad as those that automate past the point of realistic returns (and past the point of human acceptance of technology and faceless protocols).

Technology is never a substitute for good processes. You can’t buy a solution to your systematic problems. But technology should be able to alleviate some very critical “pain points,” where you spend the most time, where the greatest risks are, where failure is most likely to happen. Technology is an “aspirin,” not a holy grail. Don’t spend too much or too little, spend as needed up until the pain goes away.

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

In most cases, retailers look at technology as cost savings and/or marketing tools, not as a way to achieve better customer service. Customer service needs to be a mantra from the C-suite to check stand. To achieve this goal, employees need to feel valued, and they need to be rewarded for providing great levels of service.

Joel Rubinson
BrainTrust

Technology is becoming an extension of our being. Just like the ergonomics of a store are important to our physical characteristics, the extension of our arm, called a smartphone, is equally important.

My experience with retailers who are adept at technology is that it made the customer experience better. Sales people using tablets at a store that had things for the home…Facebook interaction with Verizon that was the only way I solved an issue I had…yeah, technology is a seamless extension of our being and therefore must be an integral part of the retail experience.

Chris Petersen, PhD.
BrainTrust

While the statistics vary by category, 70+% of consumers shop online before they go to the store, BUT roughly 70% purchase in store. Why do they still go to stores? The simple, and complex answer, is that they value the shopping experience.

If investment in technology does not augment and integrate with the consumer’s “natural shopping journey,” then it is an interruption, ignored, or even decreases sales.

There is a solid reason that Apple Stores “hire for smiles.” The core basics of proactively interacting with consumers can not be duplicated by technology, or easily replicated by competitors.

Great examples of retailers investing in technology while maintaining great customer service are department stores like Macy’s, Nordstrom, and John Lewis. It is interesting to note that some of their best tech investments are mobile apps which help store associates to “help consumers buy” solutions.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Ken is totally right in this regard…sooner or later, everything nets down to how well human beings think, care, love and act.

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

Yes, yes, yes. Why don’t most companies try and get the employee thing right before then spending all their time, effort, and money on the technology thing. The technology thing will only be as good as the people who need to use it.

I think management likes technology because it supposedly comes with a manual. Employees don’t.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

No matter how great the technology is, in the end it is all about people doing business with people. A website is designed by people and meant to be used by people. And when there is a problem or question, it is usually people that step in to help the customer.

The most obvious example of the perfect marriage of technology and customer service basics is Zappos.com. While they are an online store, their phone support is stellar.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

This seems to be a replay of what was asked only yesterday, so my response will be pretty much the same: good retailers will make productive use of tech and become even better, bad retailers will simply waste their money.

Whole Foods seems like a poor example though – an incredibly poor example – to illustrate someone being distracted. Sure, the carts may well turn out to be a silly waste of time, but can anyone seriously claim (their) interest in them has lessened WF’s stellar rep for service?

David Rich
Guest
David Rich
4 years 1 month ago

This is not an “either/or” but rather an “and/both.” Technology is fabulous…and can help create a great customer experience…but retail is a people business. Whether that is in front, behind or to the side. Looking forward to all the changes happening within the retail channels…the future looks bright.

Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
4 years 1 month ago
The simple truth as we always discuss is that “technology is only a tool.” Enough said. (Now I’ll go on and say more. ) I think there are two types of store users. Some users want the store to be a distribution node: quick in, quick out, no fuss, no bother. These users likely did all their research online and are ready to make a purchase as easily and quickly as possible. The other user wants to use the store either for initial research or to make a final decision. Regardless, they want to browse, maybe find a better deal, touch and feel the item, and require more support from store associates. The same person may be a different type of user depending on the particular purchase to be made. Even though the technology is only a tool, which must wielded by savvy associates, it can go a long way to help meet the needs of these distinct types of users. The extreme of the first type is the user who orders online and picks up at the store. The store experience for them is built completely around being efficient and technology can help speed up their visit. For the… Read more »
Kate Blake
Guest
Kate Blake
4 years 1 month ago

Retailers would rather spend money on technology and not staff the floor with well-paid and trained associates. I have walked out of Macy’s when all their technology still left me trying to find a sales person to ring up a sale. It’s ridiculous that I have to be my own salesperson. The black-clad staff I did find studiously tried to avoid eye-contact until I had my purchase in hand. Then they tried to take the sale and I told them, “Sorry, when I have to sell to myself, I shop elsewhere.”

Tom Redd
Guest

Wow, lots of comments on this one from lots of tech type people and retail pros.

Our homeland – retail – is currently in a tech catch-up mode, from planning to buying to distro to sell. Retail is always this way and thus we see some technology that is just beyond the needs of retailers and their shoppers.

Most critical for retailers right now is the customer service side. Vital to improving service is picking the level of service quality a retailer feels that they need – at stores and online – and then working back from that, looking for what must change to maintain the service level goals. This avoids getting into the retail tech craze and maintaining a focus on getting the basics in place that support great customer service. Service builds retail character and character is power – especially in retail.

Doug Fleener
Guest

Retailers seem to come at it from two different vantage points. Technology can either enable the employee to deliver a better service experience, or be seen as a “solution.” It’s those retailers that aren’t addressing the real issue. Poor service as the result of poor leadership, training, etc.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

High-end retailers have the ability, desire and funds to properly train staff in excellent customer service. The further down the food chain you go in retail, the less you will see or expect to have good customer service. That becomes the reason shoppers will take their money elsewhere.

An example that came to mind this morning is a news release that Dollar General (I think) is opening their 11,000th store. In the article they said they had a certain number of employees that, when divided out, comes to less than 10 per store. Any reason to wonder why customer service is not their focus?

Bill Davis
Guest

I agree with your assessment “I’m a proponent of innovative retail technology, but I’m also the first to admit it will fail if built on a foundation of poor service and apathetic C-level management, all too often the situation today.”

Its not an either or, it’s both that are necessary and would agree that strong management is the exception and not the rule, unfortunately. Managing the non tech basics of retailing is key, and few do it well, but Amazon has fundamentally changed the rules of the retailing game and if retailers don’t adapt, they shouldn’t be surprised to see their revenues/margin stay flat or erode.

Here’s an interesting article on this subject, for folks to read. I believe both improving customer service as well as deploying new technologies to better serve customers are key for retailers.

Tom Smith
Guest
4 years 1 month ago

Absolutely. Relying on technology rather than people to provide an outstanding customer experience, complete with consumer insights, is “fools gold.”

While your quarterly expenses may be down, so is your integrity, trust, repeat business and, ultimately, your profitability.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

I am a card carrying geek and I love technology, but I don’t love technology for technology’s sake. Technology is the vehicle by which I get something that I want. Better service, locate a product, get out fast, get more information. You get the picture.

Now recently I sat in a room full of retailers talking about omni-channel. What really got me was how they skipped over the part about what their customer might expect/want from them and went straight to tactics. All the tactics involved technology initiatives.

They were in a hurry to address omni-channel so they skipped the basics and went right tactical deployment. This is where they are making big mistakes and they aren’t cheap mistakes either. Just sayin’.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
4 years 1 month ago

Customer service and customer experience need to always be the focus. Technology should be an enabler to those two items. If a solution is not enhancing those two items, a retailer’s focus should be be on something that does.

Apple Stores are an obvious example of great technology solutions enhancing the customer experience and service. Less obvious is Mitchell’s (Westport, CT) CRM solution that allows store associates to quickly bring up key data points for each and every customer when they shop. Kids ages, spouses name, birthdays, anniversaries, even someones last vacation. Whatever info that was collected on past trips is added to the database. Not the sexiest technology solution, but certainly one that focuses on both Customer Service and Experience.

Each day shoppers that spent over $x in the store receive a personal hand written note from Jack Mitchell. Now that is what you call a customer HUG.

Verlin Youd
BrainTrust

There is always a risk of tactics or tools distracting from the actual objective that is meant to be accomplished with the aid of those same tools and tactics. This isn’t limited to retail, but plays out in every organization where focus and alignment are not maintained over time. The basics of customer service remain the same, and tools should only be applied based on their ability to improve or maintain that service level while delivering greater value to stakeholders – customers, employees, owners, etc.

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

Why is it always “either/or”? You can certainly be a good retailer without hot and cold running technology based on the factors most of the comments have cited. However, I don’t believe that you can be a competitive or prosperous retailer without it. Your team has to be on a level playing field with your customers, and they all have plenty of tech at their fingertips. If you are trying to be a winning retailer today, tech is mandatory, the bar is just too high to try and play without it.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Bingo! The best asset stores have for competing with Amazon and online buying is NOT tricked out technologies. It’s store associates.

We recently did a study around what customers liked most about bricks retail and the store associate ranked dead last – especially to Millennials. Clearly the fundamentals of in-store customer service have been lost.

But if you look at the most valued retailers out there now, like Apple, Whole Foods, Sephora, Nordstrom, and Starbucks, they have clearly not lost that basic ethic and conversely, have taken it to the bank.

Arun Channakrishnaiah
Guest
Arun Channakrishnaiah
4 years 1 month ago

Are there ways a retailer can offer good customer experience without needing technology? Sure. Would technology make it easier to do so? Yes. So why not use technology to “improve your odds” of providing great customer service?

As the scale and complexity of the supply chain increases, adopting technology is absolutely needed and retailers such as Nordstrom know how to leverage technology to improve what they can do for their customers. If technology is distracting some retailers from improving customer experience and their own operations, the problem is in how that technology has been designed and implemented and/or being used, irrespective of how cutting edge that technology is.

Marge Laney
BrainTrust
4 years 1 month ago

I laughed when I saw that video of the smart cart. Can you just picture a whole store full of talking shopping carts! This guy obviously doesn’t do much shopping, and that’s the problem. So much technology is conceived on white boards and built and tested in labs with no input from real customers.

Instead of chasing the next shiny object that promises to do away with service pain points by eliminating those pesky sales associates, retailers should invest in technology that helps the sales associate do a better job and provides the customer with a better experience. I agree with Al, tablets are a very good tool. Those two criteria will ensure less associate turnover and happier, loyal customers.

Matt Schmitt
Guest

This is not an either/or choice. Technology has to be part of the toolbox, in aid of customer service. Ken’s illustration of the poor response to his service complaints with Whole Foods is, to me, an example of where applied technology could have actually helped the situation. Many brands are leveraging social media and near real-time response teams to create a “wow” factor for customer service. Coca-Cola is a brand doing some innovative things with this, as is Best Buy and their Geek Squad.

And to Al’s point, technology used in the store environment can also be effective at improving customer service. It’s not a people vs technology choice. It’s both.

Richard Mader
Guest

Wow, the comment list is like a Who’s Who of retail technology.

The principals of retail success have not changed much since stated by James Cash Penney:
Right merchandise, Right time, Right price; and I like to add “With a smile” to indicate the need for customer service.

Technology supports and extends these basics, largely in a very positive manner. Problem is, some forget the principals and make technology the focus. And double trouble is when retailers do not properly train sales associates, which seems to be often.

Those who remember that technology is a means to a end, not the end, and utilize it to the maximum, are the winners.

gordon arnold
Guest

What technology brings to the table is time, information and a new way of doing business all over the world right now. Outside of cash-only businesses like lemonade and hot dog stands, the need for technology is and will be a must to succeed in the struggling economy we are forced to contend with. If and/or when the economy truly improves, the companies with the largest growth will have a good handle on technological advancements and e-business practices.

Retailers that still have their doubts will not need to comply after they are forced to close simply because they have chosen to not make use of the new and efficient business practices of the 21st century. There is no boogie man in the real business world. Just poor planning and execution.

William Passodelis
Guest
4 years 1 month ago

Technology can be an aid to the in-store experience and might be very good but…

Two things:

  1. Customer Service must be good – the associates should have decent product knowledge and have some degree of satisfaction in their work and some pride to be working where they are. This is probably impossible in the majority of retail stores today because as retail has evolved, the position has been destroyed in terms of work satisfaction, respect, and the desire of cost savings.
  2. Lack of retailers being merchants – the assortment and “the show” is SO very important and I think some retailers have difficulty grasping what that means or entails.
Linda Bustos
Guest
Linda Bustos
4 years 1 month ago
Technology and customer service are definitely converging – a retailer needs to look at which customer service touchpoints have already been or are in the process of being disrupted. “In reality, many retailers can achieve these same lofty goals without technology, at least initially.” The question is…how long can you provide great customer service without embracing new technologies. For example, the day is coming quickly when the consumer is going to expect to pay for everything via phone, no need to carry any coupons, loyalty cards or plastic payment methods. Everyone loves a knowledgeable sales associate, but no sales associate has memorized a vast array of customer reviews. Searching for them on a tiny mobile screen is not the best experience. Offering store tablets or digital signage where customers can experience written/video reviews and explore more content will be more important to building trust and confidence in a purchase than a smiling sales associate that may or may not have deep product knowledge. The ability to locate a sold out item in the nearest store or online, reserve it and pay for it without having to consult a customer service rep and wait for them to call store by store?… Read more »
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